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Student Engagement

How to Manage a Multiyear Project—and Why You Should Try One

Working on a project like a garden for years is challenging but yields plenty of learning and engagement for each new group of students.

November 24, 2021
Two students work in nature for school project
Courtesy of Peter Barnes

Most teachers think one school year at a time. We teach a group of students, then reset for the next group. Lessons and projects are retaught each year, but rarely does an ongoing project continue over multiple school years.

I’ve recently learned (mainly because of Covid-19 delays) the power of continuing a large pollinator garden over several school years. Each group of students learns from the year before and adds new elements that improve upon the existing project. I’m not exactly sure what direction our garden will take next, but I hope to see continued learning and passion for native plants and pollinators shared by an ever-greater community of young people.

Begin With a Framework Built for Growth and Flexibility

I started this project when working on my National Geographic Teacher Certification in 2019. The National Geographic Education learning framework encourages open-ended, inquiry-driven projects that support real change. The framework helped me focus on the big picture of my project and ensured that student input and cross-curricular learning would drive our actions. I also embraced two important principles to maintain my sanity and my long-term commitment:

  1. This is not an everyday project. Like most teachers, I have lots of content to teach and limited time. This project received attention periodically, as needs arose and if time allowed.
  2. I didn’t have all of the pieces mapped out in advance. I wanted students to drive the work and for the next steps to reveal themselves gradually.

Find Help—Lots of It

My project partner Sandy Reed and I knew virtually nothing about pollinator gardens before starting. We did a lot of reading and then contacted experts. Brent Sodergren, officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, provided equipment and labor and lots of expert advice. We met Brent at a local outdoor education conference and bugged him until he agreed to take us under his wing. Gale Martin, from local native plant nursery Natives in Harmony, helped choose plants and plan the project. Bill Resch, local historian and environmental advocate, provided students with historical context and long-term thinking about how our garden might affect our local ecosystem.

We received funding from a local environmental nonprofit, the BEEPS foundation—named after a deceased student whom both Sandy and I had taught. Without all this wide-ranging support, our project would still be in the dream phase.

Assume You Will Be Overwhelmed at Some Point

My worst moment came on a Saturday morning in September 2020, when I stood with a rented gas-powered auger (drill) from Home Depot and contemplated the task ahead of me. I planned to create 1,200 holes in the rock-hard soil for the tiny prairie plants arriving a week later. ”I must be crazy!” I said to no one in particular.

As with any difficult teacher task, I breathed deeply and began. Two hours and two sore shoulders later, I was finished. Many of my rows were crooked and some of the holes weren’t deep enough, but my work allowed for mostly successful student planting days the following week.

Frustration and failure during a large project are inevitable, but if you keep the big picture in mind, they can be manageable. My best advice is to give yourself breaks, seek more help if needed, and remember that you are attempting something challenging and new, so it won’t be perfect.

Look for Connections to Maintain Excitement

It can be difficult to get a new group excited about something started by previous students. Pictures and videos from previous years help to build excitement and show how far things have come. Younger siblings spot their elders, students can see change over time, and interest is passed from one group to the next. If possible, I encourage inviting other classes or grade levels to participate as well.

Twelve hundred plants proved to be too many for my students to get in the ground, so other students from second and sixth grade provided extra help. Now, students from multiple grade levels have worked on the pollinator garden and feel invested in its success. I plan to honor those who participated in the project by placing a permanent sign near the garden that they can autograph and visit in years to come.

Multiyear Project Ideas for Other Subjects

I realize that many teachers don’t have the flexibility in their curricula and class time to accommodate multiyear projects. Do you have time after state testing or at the beginning of the school year to incorporate a project that students can keep going for multiple years? Even a week or two can be enough time to try something exciting and new.

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Math data sets compared over multiple school years. Recorded student heights, average scores on a popular game, favorite songs, or other easily collected data could be displayed permanently on graphs or data charts. Students might enjoy comparing their current class to past groups and looking for patterns of change over time.
  2. An art mural that grows down a hallway each school year. You could change the theme each year or add to previous work with a new twist for each incoming class. Initialing or signing their work builds long-term investment from students and encourages them to visit their work in later years.
  3. A book with new chapters written each school year. Student authors could continue the story begun by their predecessors or add a new story each year. Siblings will enjoy finding their elders’ work and find connections by reading what others have written before them.
  4. A Google Slides presentation with a family tradition or family story from each student. Students could describe something special their family does together each year and look for connections with other students.

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  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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